TUKWILA — The final month of the regular season has somewhat sneaked up on Sounders FC.
Maybe it’s due to missing cues.
The U.S. Open Cup final came and went last week, having been played without Seattle for the first time in a few years. Same has been the case with the CONCACAF Champions League group stage, which was always good for a couple of late-season trips to Central America during the stretch run.
“It really doesn’t feel like there are five games left,” said midfielder Brad Evans.
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Something else has felt different, too. For the first time, the Sounders are in the driver’s seat to finish with the best record in MLS, and they could take a big step toward the Supporters’ Shield with a road win Saturday against the Colorado Rapids.
A Seattle win would also clinch a playoff berth for the fifth time in as many years as a franchise.
That distinction will have to be earned without Clint Dempsey, however, as the star forward/midfielder did not travel with the team due to a hamstring injury. It marks the Sounders’ third straight game without Dempsey and follows back-to-back ties against the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls.
Coach Sigi Schmid said the high-profile signee is making progress in his recovery, “but for him to travel at this stage is probably still a little early.”
The injury could allow Dempsey to sneak past a call-up to the U.S. men’s national team for upcoming World Cup qualifiers, but the schedule still isn’t getting any easier. Seattle has played fewer games than everyone and the disparity will correct itself quickly.
Saturday marks the first of three games over a nine-day stretch, the others against Cascadia Cup rivals Vancouver (Wednesday) and Portland (Oct. 13). The Sounders are the only team in the Western Conference with five games remaining, and all of them are against teams desperate for points in the postseason push.
“Every team is going to be giving it their all,” said defender DeAndre Yedlin.
Schmid added: “They’re all going to be exciting, hard-fought battles that are going to have playoff-type intensity.”
The first of which could come in nearly freezing conditions. The Sounders were greeted in Colorado with temperatures below 40 degrees Friday, though the forecast calls for it to be a little warmer Saturday.
History has been very kind to Seattle in the rivalry, though, with an 8-1-2 record head to head. That includes a 7-0-1 mark in the past eight and three straight wins at Dick’s Sporting Good Park.
Past success, of course, is little comfort.
“This game is going to be extremely tough, probably the toughest one of the year,” said Evans, “but we have to approach it like any other.”
• Also unlikely to play for the Sounders are veteran defenders Djimi Traore (hamstring) and Leo Gonzalez (hip/groin).
• Steve Zakuani could be in line to play for the first time since April 20. The midfielder has missed 23 games, mainly due to sports hernia surgery, but has been on the bench for the past two. Colorado is where Zakuani suffered a horrific leg injury on April 22, 2011.
The Sounders have been dominant in the series against the Rapids, with wins in eight of 11 regular-season meetings.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @joshuamayers